School children in the Hiroshima Peace Park
Dark tourism,  Japan,  War

Finding peace in Hiroshima

‘Excuse me, may we ask you some questions?’ The three school girls spoke in chorus, politely and in good English. We naturally agreed and, armed with a clip-board and a work-book with a set of these questions, they proceeded to ‘interview’ us.

They were to be the first of many. Our progress through the Hiroshima Peace Park was regularly interrupted as group after group of school children spotted us, hurtled towards us, paused, maybe giggled or nudged each other, and then began to quiz us. In mixed levels of English, from the reasonable to the almost non-existent, they asked about our visit, our home country, our perceptions of Japan and, usually, our dreams for world peace.

Children interviewing a visitor to the Hiroshima Peace Park
Our companion Phil being interviewed in the Hiroshima Peace Park

After each interview we might be asked to write something in their work-books – our names, where we lived, and in one, our message for peace. They posed for photos for us, and asked us to pose with them. And often there were gifts – a paper crane, a hand-made bookmark, a photo of their school.

I think we must have given about ten of these ‘interviews’, but I have to confess that in the end we did tire of them a little and learned to take a circuitous route around the classes we saw ahead of us. Not that the experience of meeting these kids wasn’t a special one – it was – but we had lots to see in the park and a train back to Osaka to catch at the end of the afternoon. But we left with their halting English voices and shy smiles as lasting memories of the positive side of Hiroshima and its efforts for world peace.

School children in the Hiroshima Peace Park
School children in the Hiroshima Peace Park

The dropping of the bomb

When, at 8.15 am on August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, the city became in an instant one of the most famous in the world; but what city would ever have wanted that sort of fame?

The bomb killed an estimated 80,000 people instantly. It flattened an area of five square miles (13 square kilometres) and destroyed about 69% of the city’s buildings were completely destroyed, with another 7% severely damaged. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and five days after that, Japan surrendered.

But the effects of the bomb were much longer term, with estimates suggesting that the final death toll was about 140,000, (out of a population of about 350,000), including those who died later from radiation. Many also suffered long-term sickness and disability as a result of the bomb’s radiation effects.

Hiroshima would never be the same again

Glass jars fused together by the heat of the blast (on display in the Peace Museum)

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, today Hiroshima has succeeded in reinventing itself as a modern city that pays tribute to its past in the best possible way – using those terrible events as a platform from which to campaign for peace.

There is so much I could write about all the monuments in the Peace Park – their history, their significance etc. In fact, I have already done so in my TravellersPoint journal, so I suggest you head over there if you want to read a very full account: https://toonsarahvt.travellerspoint.com/121/. Meanwhile here I will focus on just a few that moved me the most.

Genbaku Domu: the Atomic Bomb Dome

This was the first sight we saw on leaving the bus from the station, as it must be for most visitors. Its stark silhouette is probably the most graphic, and iconic, symbol of the events of the day the bomb fell. The intended target point of the atomic bomb was the nearby Aioi Bridge but it missed this slightly and exploded almost directly above this building. Because the blast was felt from immediately above, hitting the structure vertically, a surprising amount remained intact even though, of course, everyone inside was killed instantly.

For some years after the war the skeleton of the building remained as it was. There were some who felt it should be pulled down and the site redeveloped, while others argued for its restoration and yet others for its preservation as a ruin, to stand as a memorial to what had happened and to those who had lost their lives. The latter group won the day, and in December 1996 the Atomic Bomb Dome was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its listing was based on its survival from a destructive force, the first use of nuclear weapons on human population, and its representation as a symbol of peace.

The Peace Memorial Park

Between the two rivers in the centre of Hiroshima, where the bomb exploded, lay Nakajima, the city’s busiest downtown district. It had been a thriving commercial area since the Edo period, with boats coming up the river to unload goods here. It was heavily populated, with an estimated 6,500 people living in its seven cho (neighbourhood units) at the time of the atomic bombing.

Children in the Peace Museum looking at a model of Nakajima before the bomb hit

Following the war, the city decided that rather than reconstruct Nakajima as it had been, the entire district would be developed as a park that would not only serve as a memorial to all who had lost their lives but also as a focal point for the city’s new commitment to advocate for world peace and an end to nuclear weapons. At its heart is the Pond of Peace with at one end the Cenotaph and at the other the Peace Flame.

The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

After the bombing the bodies of some victims were claimed by relatives, but very many were unidentifiable and thus unclaimed, while others had no relatives left alive. This area, like much of Nakajima, was strewn with dead bodies after the bombing. Innumerable corpses, including those pulled out of the river, were brought here and cremated on a temporary altar at a temple on this site. There were also many who were effectively cremated by the bomb itself.

Under this mound is a vault which contains the ashes of roughly 70,000 victims. Those that were cremated as individuals have their own white porcelain urn, and if their name is known it is inscribed on the outside. But the vast majority of those whose ashes lie here don’t have the dignity of these urns. Behind curtains that hang in the vault are pine crates marked with the names of sites where human dust and bits of bone were found—a factory or a school or an apartment block.

Other than that, the ashes are anonymous. Thousands may still grieve for these victims but there is no way that they can ever be separated or identified. Under this mound therefore, in a handful of wooden boxes, are all that remains of a quarter of the population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A sobering thought as we stood before it.

Grassy mound with stone lanterns, Hiroshima Peace Park
The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

The Children’s Peace Monument

This is probably the most striking of the memorials in the park and, from what we observed, the focal point for the many school groups that visit. It is dedicated to the memory of Sadako Sasaki, a two-year-old girl living in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. She survived the blast, despite being flung out of a window, but in 1954 developed leukaemia and died the following year.

Thousands of paper cranes are offered here every day by the visiting children and are displayed in glass cases around the monument. These paper cranes have become a symbol of Hiroshima’s efforts for peace and you see them all over the park. At the foot of the monument is a black marble slab on which is inscribed in Japanese: ‘This is our cry. This is our prayer. Building peace in the world.’

Postscript

Nowhere in the park did I see any hint that Japan was attributing blame for what happened on any particular nation. The Japanese inscription on the Cenotaph translates as ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.’ But this is an approximation of the meaning, as in Japanese it is possible to omit the subject of the sentence. So the real reading is ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for … shall not repeat the evil.’ In this way they have sought not to blame either the US and their allies who dropped the bomb, nor their own army generals for refusing to accept the inevitable and surrender to prevent further killing, nor their own nation’s part in the atrocities of WW2. The Japanese see Hiroshima as a memorial for all affected by the horrors of war, and so, I believe, should we.

As the plaque on the Cenotaph explains:

‘The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima — enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.’

I visited Hiroshima in 2013

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